FARMINGTON — It’s not about being female; it’s about being competent, Charlene Cushing says.

“It’s just earning your respect,” said Cushing, of Farmington, who along with her husband, Mike Cushing, owns and races a stable of Standardbred horses across New England. This week they will be racing at the Fryeburg Fair.

One of a handful of female harness drivers on the circuit, Cushing, 41, has been driving for almost two decades: in New York where she grew up surrounded by horses and in New England where she has won hundreds of races on the Northeast harness circuit.

Breaking into harness racing in Maine wasn’t difficult with her proven record, but the business is dominated by men, Cushing said.

“There are a few (female drivers), but it’s a male sport,” she said.

Cushing went from riding horses to driving horses on a “race bike.” Her talent as a rider got her a stint as the Mighty M’s marshal and an outrider at the Monticello race track in New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“There were a few times that (Charlene) plucked a driver-less horse right out of a racing field without any resulting problems and all remained safe because of her abilities as an outrider,” Eric Warner, the track’s director of racing, told the United States Trotting Association in a 2011 USTA article.

In that same article, the association called Cushing “among the very best lady drivers in North America.”

She’s competitive.

“I don’t like for him to beat me,” said Cushing, who races against her brother-in-law.

She said both driver and horse have to be athletic.

“The horses jog every day,” she said. “They train like the drivers. They’re athletes.”

Harness racing is a family business. She married driver Mike Cushing in 2007 and the two, along with Cushing’s brother and other family members, ride the Northeast circuit and other places nine months a year. They race a stable of about 15 horses, including many top participants in the Maine Standardbred Breeders Stake program.

Mike Cushing is also a popular race caller on the Pine Tree circuit. He stepped down as announcer at the Scarborough race track to concentrate on training and driving Standardbred horses. He continues to announce at the Fryeburg Fair.

Circuit racing is a full-time job, but one without health insurance or retirement plans, Charlene Cushing said. The risk of injury is always present.

After her husband broke his back during a race in 2008, Charlene Cushing decided to seek a new career.

“It gave me a different sense,” she said. “It could happen to me.”

In 2011, she was one of 19 people who completed the College Transition program at the Adult Basic Education office in Farmington.

Now she is in the middle of exams at nursing school in Lewiston, running back and forth among school, her stables in Farmington and the Fryeburg Fair, and tending to her 14-year-old daughter Jessica, a student at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington.

Asked if her daughter would join the family business, Cushing laughed.

“She wants to become a cook,” she said.

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